Hello everyone,

Excited as I am about the news of the fully translated Stopani light novel being published this summer, I also wanted to continue the story of my own. This story is the cumination of my previous Stopani serials, Endless Love, Summer Holiday, Hello Work and even a touch of Everybody Loves Yaya and its sequel and the still unfinished Opposites. It'll close off a lot of plotlines left open in all these stories (since all these stories are related to each other, after all). Certainly it is a continuation of Hello Work!, considering I ended it with a cliffhanger of sorts.

That is not to say that this will be my last Stopani story. I love the characters far too much for that. Focus will be on ShizumaxNagisa, ChikaruxShion and YayaxTsubomi.

I hope you will like it.

Strawberry Weddings

Chapter 1 – Hanazono Homecoming

Once again, Nagisa was amazed at the sheer wealth of the Hanazono family as Shizuma drove her car onto the premises of the Hanazono estate. They had just entered the main gate and Shizuma was just driving her corvette through the private forest which surrounded the estate. It was mind boggling for Nagisa to realize that the Hanazonos had a 2 kilometre driveway.

It had taken two days of travel to get here. Rather than using the Shinkansen bullet trains, Shizuma preferred to bring her car so they could travel on their own if they needed to get away from the estate. And considering the length of the driveway, it was probably a good idea to have brought the car.

Nagisa watched Shizuma for a while. Most of the trip she had been silent. In fact, ever since learning her father was getting re-married, she had been a lot quieter, as if constantly lost in thought. Her school work was suffering and her social life had taken a turn for the worse.

Last week Takashi had brought Shizuma home. She had been drunk. And not just a little drunk, Shizuma had been completely plastered. Though Shizuma enjoyed a drink of wine every now and then, she had always been careful not to overdo it. But that night, she had just gone on a binge. Of course, Shizuma had sorely regretted it the next morning.

It hadn't helped that Shizuma hadn't spoken to her dad in three weeks. After dropping the bomb on her, mister Hanazono had left for a three week vacation with his bride to be. As he usually did when he did not wanted to be found, not even his direct subordinates at the company knew where to find him. Not even his daughter was able to find him and contact him. And after seeing how the news had affected her wife, Nagisa found that to be very irresponsible.

In any case, he would be coming home tomorrow and Shizuma and Nagisa would finally be able to meet this mystery woman. Nagisa could tell Shizuma was nervous and broody. She tried to hide it well, but Nagisa knew her wife longer than today.

"It'll be nice to show you the home I grew up in," Shizuma smiled gently. Though Shizuma had stayed plenty of times at Nagisa's parents house, there was never a need for Nagisa to visit the Hanazono estate. Shizuma's father was out of the house more often than not, and Shizuma had moved on to a life of her own. Most times of the year, the Hanazono estate was empty.

Finally, the road came to an end in front of a large fountain which was, in turn, in front of a large European style mansion which wouldn't look out of place in the British countryside. Nagisa gasped as she saw the big three story building with the huge windows. Tallies on all the walls overgrown with plants. It was absolutely gorgeous.

Shizuma parked her Corvette near the entrance to the house. A few moments later a tall butler left the house and stepped over. He was a middle-aged man of European descent and deeply bowed before Shizuma.

"Victor-san," spoke Shizuma softly. "It's good to see you."

"And you, ma'am," he spoke in Japanese with a slight accent. He turned to Nagisa and gave another deep bow. "And you must be Aoi-sama," he told her. "We have all heard a lot about you. It is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance."

Shizuma handed Victor the keys to her car and asked him to put the car in the garage later. Victor then opened the door for them and let them in.

Inside was a large entry hall with a double staircase, outfitted with European style furniture and expensive carpet. On both floors, doorways on each side of the hall led to areas further into the house.

"Oh, wow," Nagisa gasped.

"You get used to it," Shizuma shrugged. She stepped over to the centerpiece of the room, the first thing people entering the house would see. It was a painting in oils, about 3 meters high and 2 meters wide. It was a painting of a very beautiful and regal young woman, with light hair which seemed to go on forever and piercing green eyes. Shizuma stepped over to it and watched it with adoration.

"Shizuma," Nagisa asked. "Is that?"

"Hanazono Hoshi," Shizuma spoke softly. "Mom."

"She's beautiful," Nagisa said. The resemblance with Shizuma was uncanny.

"Dad had this painted right after her death," Shizuma seemed sad. "I wish you could have met her."

It was easy for Nagisa to see that, even if her mother had died when Shizuma was very young, she still loved her mother dearly.

Just then, Victor entered the house after having parked the car. He clapped his hand and immediately, from all corners of the house, a group of ten maids came running. A lead maid brew a whistle and on cue all maids bowed politely.

"The Hanazono maid team stands ready to serve, Hanazono-sama!" the lead maid announced.

"Wow," Nagisa blinked again. "A whole team of maids."

"Victor-san?" Shizuma asked. "When will my father arrive?"

"Apologies, ma'am," he bowed. "He has sent word that he will be delayed until this evening."

'"We have some time to kill then," Shizuma smiled. "Good. I have much to show you."

Victor coughed gently, his way of attracting Shizuma's attention. "Ladies, may I respectfully suggest a visit to the dining hall? You have been driving for a long time, after all."

At the merest hint of the suggestion of food, Nagisa's tummy rumbled loudly.

"That answers that," Shizuma smirked as she guided her wife to the dining hall. The dining hall itself was like the rest of the house- large and high. A long table stood in the middle of a well-lit room with tall windows with a view of a private lake. Currently, only two plates were set on either side of the table. After Shizuma and Nagisa had taken their seats, Victor clapped his hands. A few moments later, a young maid pushed a trolley with on it a silver tray. Nagisa looked on with curiosity as the maid put the tray on the table and slowly remove the cover, only to reveal...

"Two Big Macs?" Nagisa blinked.

"Apologies, ma'am," Victor nodded. "But our chef is still on sabbatical. Luckily, there is a conveniently placed McDonalds just a few streets from here. Should the food not be to your liking, we..."

"No, no, no, it's fine," Nagisa said quickly.

"If it's good enough for you guys, it's good enough for me," Shizuma said as she took one of the hamburgers and dug in.

"I hate how you can eat anything you want and still never get fat," Nagisa muttered.

"It's a gift," Shizuma said between bites.

Finally, it had come to the point where Shizuma would show her her old room. Or rather, wing.

Shizuma's quarters consisted of two floors of rooms, connected by a large double staircase. The bedrooms, guest rooms and bathrooms were upstairs, while the lower floor was reserved for entertainment. The center of the wing was a large round and tall room with fireplace and two reading chairs between the double staircase leading up. Book cases were lined all along the walls.

Aside from books on all the usual subjects, the majority of the bookcases contained horror novels and manga. And she had read every single one of them. Often several times.

Though Nagisa was much less of a scaredy cat these days, horror still wasn't a hobby her wife didn't share. This was something Shizuma regretted, because she had fond memories of sharing scary stories with Kaori, but she guessed it couldn't be helped. Fortunately, Chikaru-chan was an even bigger horror otaku than she was, so they'd often spend horror nights together at Chikaru's apartment, much to Shion's chagrin.

"Oh my god!" Nagisa blinked. "This is where you grew up... You... you have a private pool! And... look at that sitting room. Is that a stuffed tiger?"

"Don't forget the private cinema," Shizuma smirked. "Of course, you won't be interested. I think I only have horror movies in the movie vault."

"Wow... just wow," Nagisa blinked. "I only had, like, 20 square foot in my room when I was growing up."

Shizuma took Nagisa up the stairs to the bedroom. The bedroom itself was almost all pink with white furniture. Plushie animals and gorgeous porcelain dolls lined the walls. In the middle of the room was a large four poster bed and to the opposite end of the wall stood an ornate writing desk. To the right side were French windows leading to a lovely balcony overlooking the forest. The whole room was liberally filled with plants and flowers.

"No dresser?" Nagisa asked.

"That's the room next door."


Shizuma plopped herself on the bed, laying down on her stomach and hugging the fabric of the duvet. "I love this bed. I kissed my first girlfriend here, right on this bed."

"How long was that ago?"

"I was three," Shizuma smirked. "Miho-chan and I were going to get married and live in a big house with a lot of cats. And we'd both be firewomen when we'd grow up."

Nagisa giggled for a moment. "Should I be worried about competition?"

"Nah," Shizuma smirked. "Miho-chan traded me in for a girl who had a Barbie playhouse. The hussy."

"This is so amazing," Nagisa looked around as she lay down on the bed and found herself embraced by Shizuma, who gently started to stroke her hair. "Hm, what's that?"

"What's what?"

"There's a small corridor there. It looks like it should lead to something but it's just a dead end," Nagisa frowned.

Shizuma's mood changed completely. "I used to have my private bathroom there. It had a jacuzzi, a shower and a marble floor. But dad had the door masoned shut and made it look as if the room never existed."

"Huh?" Nagisa bit her lip. "That's odd. Why did he do that?"

Shizuma sat up, her expression one of sorrow. "Because..." she hesitated for a moment and looked her beloved wife in the eyes. "Because I was planning to end my life in that room."

The shock was evident on Nagisa's face. "Ssssh," Shizuma said quickly. "Ain't gonna happen. Never."

"Why would you want to do that?" Nagisa asked softly.

"That room was the place Kaori and I made love for the last time," Shizuma started. "You see, before her health deteriorated so badly that her body wouldn't be able to handle the strain anymore. I left Astraea Hill to come home for a couple of months after Kaori's death. I... I just wanted to be with her again so badly."

Shizuma closed her eyes, tears starting to brim in her eyes while Nagisa looked upon her with horror and sadness.

"I'd filled the jaccuzzi with hot water, I had stolen some of my dad's liquor and had the razor blades at the ready," Shizuma closed her eyes. "I... took off all my clothes, drank half of the whiskey and sat down in the bath. But, I just couldn't go through with it. Kaori... she... she loved life so much. She literally fought for every breath when she was dying. If I'd throw away my life so easily, Kaori'd never forgive me. I had to be on the brink of ending my life to realize that."

"Oh my god," Nagisa sniffed.

"Dad found me sitting in the bath. Drunk and staring endlessly at a razor blade I was holding in my hand. You can understand he was very upset," Shizuma shook her head. "We cried together. For Kaori. For ourselves. For mom. For whatever was causing us pain. I had already decided I would live with my pain, but dad didn't want to take any chances. He had the room wiped off the map, as it were."

Shizuma felt two loving arms wrap around her stomach, while hot tears fell on her back. "Oh, Shizuma," Nagisa sniffed as she held her wife tightly. Shizuma smiled and twisted around in Nagisa's embrace. She lay Nagisa down on the bed and lay down on top of her. Shizuma looked at the crucifix hanging from Nagisa's neck. "I never told anyone about this. Not even Miyuki. I hope you won't think less of me for this," Shizuma said. "Catholics take a dim view on suicide, I hear."

"I love you," Nagisa said sincerely. "God loves you."

"You know you do," Shizuma smirked after nipping at Nagisa's neck. "Dad won't be here for hours. And I have the sudden urge to celebrate life by making passionate and wild love to my beautiful wife."

"Would this be the first time you'd make love in this bed?" Nagisa smiled.

"Hah!" Shizuma shook her head. "God no! Not by a longshot."

"Somehow I figured that," Nagisa giggled.

"It will, however, be the first time I make love to my wife in this bed," Shizuma said as she rested a hand on Nagisa's breast while leading a trail of kisses over her upper body.

Nagisa's answer was to slowly rising Shizuma's shirt over her head. But just after Shizuma had laid her beloved down on the bed, she stopped. A sly grin crossed her beautiful features. "I have a better idea," she winked. "I haven't made love to my wife in the pool before either."

Elsewhere, on the premises a similarly rich family estate, Shion was pacing back and forth. She felt helpless and useless.

All around her people were running back and forth changing the yard of her family estate to fit her wedding. There were dozens of caterers, ushers, designers, bakers, security, camera people and servants. All of them working on the wedding.

And none of those people took orders from either her or Chikaru.

All the wedding planning was under complete control of both her grandmother and Chikaru's father. And the problem was that they couldn't agree on anything.

Though they both wanted the best for their children, the goal of the wedding had been snowed under for the sake of petty rivalries. Her grandmother was an obscenely rich company owner while Chikaru's father was a professional activist often protesting against worker oppression. To say that their personalities clashed was the understatement of the century.

The current set-up was to have the wedding take place on a platform custom made - it resembled a classic Japanese garden from the Meji era, complete with bridges and interconnected ponds containing koi carps. It even had several working waterfalls.

Shion and Chikaru found it to be absolutely gorgeous and would love to get married on that platform. Problem is, this was just the last in a long line of many such gorgeous wedding settings.

Shion knew exactly what was going to happen. She had seen it all before. Either her grandmother or Chikaru's father or both, would find some sort of fault with it. Bickering would ensue and turn into an argument. The argument would lead to the plan being scrapped and started from scratch. This had been the cause for numerous delays in their wedding date.

According to their families, everything had to be absolutely perfect. And it never was.

She brushed past a couple of security guards and looked up see Chikaru standing on the platform, apparently playing referee between her father and Shion's grandmother. It was easy to see the argument was getting heated

Chikaru herself looked pale and haggard. Shion couldn't blame her, because ever since they had arrived to help coordinate the wedding to finally see it through to the end, Chikaru had been right the middle of every argument and every senseless form of bickering. Every single one of them. And there had been many, oh so many.

'The bridges are too narrow'. 'The cake is too small'. 'The workers need to be paid more salary'. 'The fukata are the wrong color'. 'There's snails in the yard'. 'Those floral arrangement clash with the drapes'.

"... and is why we need to take a step back."

"Fool!" shouted her grandmother. "The distribution of the guest chairs is fine!"

"That's what you said about the people with temp contracts working at your company," he smirked smugly. "That didn't turn out fine, did it? The judge even said so. Who's to say you're not wrong now, hm?"

"Impudent whelp!" the old lady exploded and called for a servant. "You there! Get my sword! It's time to make this guy lose a couple of inches!"

Shion growled and was about to step up to yell some sense into them, when the unthinkable happened.

Chikaru burst into tears.

"Stop it! Stop it! Just stop it!" Chikaru shrieked. "Stop fighting! I... I... I can't take this anymore!"

Too stunned to react, Shion stood frozen into place as the crying Chikaru rushed away and past her. Her grandmother and Chikaru's father were equally stunned.

A few moments later, Shion regained her composure and gave her family the angriest glare she could muster. "Are you two happy now?" she shouted, before running after Chikaru.

She found Chikaru in the guesthouse in the garden, where they had been staying for the past week. Before following the sound of the sobs, Shion noticed a hastily opened bottle of pills laying on the table next to the door.


"Sweetness?" Shion asked and was shocked to find Chikaru laying on the couch in a foetal position, crying softly. "Gods above, I've never seen you like this."

As soon as she heard Shion's voice, Chikaru turned around and flew into her arms. Her sobs increased as she was being held. "S-shion-koi," she sniffed. "They want to postpone the wedding again. Again! I... I don't know what to do anymore. I really don't!"

Shion muttered a curse under her breath. "If I'd know this would happen, I... Oh, who am I trying to kid? I'd have asked you to marry me anyway."

This made Chikaru laugh in spite of herself. A minor victory for Shion.

"We were wrong in letting our families take over," Chikaru nodded.

"To that, I agree."

In a sense, it had been their respect and love for their families which had gotten them into this mess in the first place. They had wanted them to be involved. But not quite this much.

"It would have been easier if we had just gotten married in the Ryokan after I first asked you," Shion nodded. "I mean, come on, it's a symbolic wedding. It's not legal. Not yet, anyway."

"It's gotten to be more important for *them*," Chikaru sniffed. "They've forgotten that this wedding is supposed to be for *us*."

Shion closed her eyes. "We need to get away from this place. It's driving us both mad."

"You mean... elope?" Chikaru said. "I thought we really didn't want to do that."

Shion thought for a moment. "I know. But right now, it's not a bad thought," she said. "I was just thinking more along the lines of just clearing our heads, though. Going somewhere, just the two of us. Or with friends. Hm, I have an idea. I'll make the call later," Shion said and kissed Chikaru's tears away. "I first want to know if you're okay."

"I am," Chikaru nodded. "It just... got a little overwhelming."

Shion chuckled briefly.

"What?" Chikaru asked.

"Oh, no, it's just that," Shion snorted again. "It's always been you calming *me* down before. This role reversal we have now just feels a little weird."

"I like it, though," Chikaru smiled. "But you already knew I like being cuddled."

"Oh, Chikaru," Shion sighed. "What are we going to do about them?"

"I don't know," Chikaru nodded. "And right now, I don't even want to know."

"I agree," Shion said, and a plan was already forming in her mind to get her beloved away from all the stress.

"Oh dear," said Shizuma as she was talking into her mobile from the side of the pool. As she was submerged to her waist down, she was careful not to drop the phone into the water. "Well, I have a nice idea. Why don't you two come to my family estate? It's nice, quiet, roomy. We're here and my father and his soon-to-be bride will also be here. Why not join us for the fun? It'll help get her mind off things. Right. Right. Well, I'll email you directions later today. Talk to you soon."

After she hung up the phone, she felt Nagisa's arms around her and found herself being dragged back to the deep end. There were giggles, splashing and kisses as the two girls embraced to resume their watery-sans-bathingsuits fun.

"Who was that?" Nagisa asked between kisses.

"Shion," Shizuma replied as the two girls floated. "It was about Chikaru. She had some sort of mental breakdown."

"Oh no!" Nagisa gasped. "What happened?"

"Their parents wanted to postpone their wedding again for a new set of changes," Shizuma sighed. "It finally got to Chikaru. She needs rest and distance from her own wedding. Imagine that."

"Poor Chikaru-chan. Poor Shion-chan," Nagisa shook her head.

"I asked for them to come here, be with friends and relax. Chikaru was always taking care of us. She's done so much for us both and it'll be nice to do something back for her," shizuma smiled as her elusive wife escaped from her embrace and swam away. Shizuma would have to give chase and work for her next kisses.

Nagisa giggled as Shizuma growled and swam after her. Just as she was about to be caught, there was a sound of the scraping of a throat. A maid with long black hair was standing at the edge of the pool, holding a stack of fluffy towels and bathrobes.

"Eeeeeeeh!" Nagisa wailed as she realized she was quite naked in front of a stranger, and promptly hid behind Shizuma.

Shizuma found the whole thing rather comical. "Nagisa, this is Sharon. She's my handmaiden whenever I'm at the house."

"Aoi-sama need not worry," Sharon bowed. "I am heterosexual, so I am not enticed by naked women."

"Yep," Shizuma winked. "Sharon's only flaw."

"I'd say her directness is another one," Nagisa whispered.

"Yeah, she can be quite blunt."

"I've noticed."

"I take it both mistresses are done frolicking in the pool?" Sharon spoke. "We have made preparations to make you comfortable until Hanazono-sama has returned to the house."

About a minute later, Nagisa and Shizuma found themselves lying on their bellies on a massage table while eight maids were catering to them. Both girls were being given a back massage, while two maids worked on their hair. Meanwhile, four maids, one for each hand, were busy giving them an expert manicure.

"Ooooooh," Nagisa groaned as she was close to falling asleep. "This is so nice."

"Hm," Shizuma gasped, in a similar state as Nagisa. "It's good to be rich."

At the door way of an empty apartment stood two girls. The apartment itself was spacious, a large well-lit living room with a wooden floor and a big window with a view to the mountains beyond the city led to several smaller side rooms, including a kitchen.

"Wow," Tsubomi gasped.

"I knew you'd like it," Yaya said.

Yaya would graduate soon and attend university, while Tsubomi would still spend 2 years at the Hill. She had chosen the closest university to Astraea Hill so that she and Tsubomi could have something resembling a love-life over the weekends until the younger girl had graduated as well. It was a similar solution to the problem Shizuma and Nagisa had had.

Fortunately, Yaya's parents were wealthy real-estate moguls. It didn't take Yaya long to get the deed to her lovely new appartment signed.

"It's great!" Yaya grinned. "The Hill is just a shinkansen away, Shizuma-sama and Nagisa-chan live right around the corner. Chikaru-chan and Shion-san on the other side of town. Plenty of restaurants and shops near and one street away from the park."

"This is amazing!" Tsubomi raved. "So, which of these is going to be my room?"

"Y-your room?" Yaya blinked. "You are not really grasping the concept of living together, are you?"

"Hm?" Tsubomi narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean?"

"My sweet Tsubomi-chan," Yaya hugged her girlfriend. "You'll be with me in our queen-sized bed where we will be doing deliciously naughty things to each other in several very pleasant and flexible positions."

Tsubomi took a few moments to let this mental image sink in. Finally, she smiled and said: "Okay, fine by me."

"What?" Yaya frowned. "No, 'Yaya-chan! Ecchi!' or 'Yaya-chan needs to keep her libido in check'. Just 'fine by me'?"

Tsubomi grinned. "Well, it does make for an enticing thought."

"Nrrrghhhh!" Yaya wailed. "It's no fun when you don't fight back!"

Tsubomi smiled sweetly and pinched Yaya's cheek.

"Right," Yaya said. "Let's focus on what we're going to do with the place, hm?"

Yaya led Tsubomi to the master bedroom right next to the living room. It was spacious and had walk-in closets built into the wall. A large window offered the same magnificent view on the mountains. "I'm thinking four poster princess bed here," Yaya winked, making Tsubomi blush slightly.

Tsubomi then walked into a smaller side-room and concluded that it would be a perfect hobby room, or a nice room to seclude oneself in for school work while Yaya would be playing her video games in the living room. All in all, Tsubomi felt a little intimidated by living with Yaya. Oh, she did love Yaya dearly and had spent plenty of time with Yaya in her room back on the Hill, but still...

... she wondered if they could live together without them bashing each other's skulls in.

But only time would tell.

Back in the living room, they started discussing plans for the furniture.

"A Tiki bar!"

"Come again?" Tsubomi asked.

"I always wanted my very own Tiki bar!" Yaya smiled.

Tsubomi had to admit there was plenty of room for one. "Hm, how about a reading corner over there? A reading chair flanked with book cases."

"Sounds good," Yaya smiled. "Hm, what if we place the TV in the corner next to the window and then we can put the couch facing the window itself. Isn't that a great idea?"

"Are you kidding?" Tsubomi retorted. "We can't place the sofa like that! We need to put it with the back to the window!"

"You're nuts!" Yaya frowned. "We have a view like that and then you want to turn your back to it?"

"That's like... making a window shop!" Tsubomi retorted. "What if we want to cuddle or hold each other while we're sitting on the couch! Those are private moments! I know Yaya-chan is an exhibitionist, but I surely am not."

"Oh, stop being such a prude!" Yaya shot back. "We love each other and I don't mind if the whole world sees it!"

"Yaya-chan will be changing her tune when she will see our cuddles and kisses posted on Youtube!"

Yaya suddenly grinned broadly. "Tsubomi-chan! We are having our very first fight in our new home! This is big! We must celebrate!"

Tsubomi blinked. "Celebrate? How?"

Yaya smirked, grabbed Tsubomi and let the both of them fall backwards. Though the ground was a bit hard, the fact that Tsubomi lay on top of her made up for it. "Well," Yaya smiled as she snaked her arms around Tsubomi's waist. "I got an idea or two."

"Yaya-chan no baka," Tsubomi whispered and leaned in for a kiss.

"Nervous?" Nagisa offered Shizuma an encouraging smile as the two of them gently walked down the stairs to the entry hall.

"Not really," Shizuma whispered.

"Liar," Nagisa chuckled.

"Am I that obvious?" Shizuma sighed.

Nagisa reflected how out of place they looked in their casual attires. Both were wearing jeans and a simple blouse, looking a bit out of place in a mansion fit for royalty. Neither girl had thought to bring an evening gown. Then again, Nagisa was sure mister Hanazono wouldn't mind.

Both girls waited anxiously as Victor went outside. The car containing Shizuma's father had just arrived and it didn't take long for him to enter.

"Dad!" Shizuma rushed to him and the father and daughter hugged tightly. The hug probably lasted a tad longer than necessary, but the two hadn't seen each other in months, so it was understandable.

Shizuma's father, Hanazono Hito, was a middle-aged man who looked somewhat younger than his age. Thin and silver-haired like his daughter, he had the grace of a true gentleman. Nice as he was to Nagisa, she had heard from Shizuma that he was absolutely ruthless and unforgiving when it came to business.

"You look well, Zuma-chan," mister Hanazono said. "And Nagisa-chan..."

He moved to hug his daughter-in-law. Even though their marriage was symbolic, mister Hanazono considered her as much a daughter-in-law as if it was legal.

"Well," Shizuma smirked. "Nice tactic to keep us in suspense. Where's this gorgeous bride of yours?"

On cue, the door opened again and Victor walked in, holding the hand of a four year old girl. The girl had pig-tails, a pretty dress and was holding a plushie bunny in her free hand.

"Uhm," Shizuma blinked.

"That's not her, bonehead," Hanazono-san chuckled. "*That*'s her!"

A tall and young woman with gentle eyes entered the house, carrying a small suitcase. The woman gave them all a friendly and humble bow. She was beautiful and soft-spoken, yet her eyes belied a strength within her caused by hardship. What was also striking to Nagisa was that this woman was not even half of Hanazono-san's age.

Nagisa also noticed an acute mood change in Shizuma. The tall silver-haired queen had fallen silent as she observed the two new girls with an emotionless expression. Nagisa had seen that look before, and it didn't bode well.

"Hi!" the tiny girl rushed to Shizuma. "Are you my new auntie?"

"No, no, Maaya," the woman smiled. "When Hito-kun and I will be married, technically you will be the auntie. Remember when I explained this to you in the car?"

"Oh, yeah!" the tiny girl called Maaya told Shizuma. "I will be your auntie. And you will be my niece. Isn't that cool?"

Shizuma remained silent and simply cocked her head sideways. The girl didn't quite understand, and decided to mimic Shizuma's odd behaviour in an attempt to appease her. Nagisa looked on with concern.

Mister Hanazono apparently spotted the change in his daughter's behaviour as well and laughed nervously while the woman stepped up to Shizuma.

"Greetings, Shizuma-san," the woman bowed respectfully. "I am Yoshida Midori and this is my sister Maaya."

"Hi!" Maaya greeted cheerfully.

Shizuma remained silent and did not return the bow. Midori continued her greeting. "You must be Shizuma-san. You have your father's eyes."

Nagisa agreed with that. Shizuma's gorgeous amber eyes were something she had inherited from her father. But the fact that Shizuma had yet to return the greeting started to worry her. And looking at Shizuma's father, Nagisa realized she wasn't the only one who was concerned.

"Well, uh," Midori continued on, a little more nervously. "I sort of feel I know you already, even though we have never met. Your father told me so much about you."

Shizuma finally spoke. "Did he now?" Shizuma said softly, almost a whisper.

"Uhm, Zuma-chan?" mister Hanazono bit his lip nervously. "Shall we go to the sitting room?

"You do whatever you want," Shizuma muttered.

Hanazono-san sighed and guided Midori to the stairs. Nagisa looked at Hanazono-san and Midori and then back at Shizuma. The moment Hanazono-san wrapped an arm around Midori's waist, Shizuma clenched her hands into balled fists for a moment. Whatever Shizuma was planning to do, she changed her mind and relaxed again.

Nagisa and Shizuma followed then up to the sitting room on the second floor. It consisted of a trio of couches around a table, with tapestries and paintings on the wall for decoration. After everyone had sat down, an awkward silence followed. At this point, Shizuma was glaring.

"So, uh," Nagisa said, trying to break the tension while Shizuma narrowed her eyes at Midori. "How was your trip?"

"Oh, quite well," Hanazono-san said. "The resort was lovely, as was the company," he said, making Midori blush and Shizuma growl. "We travelled by private jet, so no complaints about the flight."

"Dad..." Shizuma hissed in an icy tone, and it was hard to miss her darkened expression. "A word?"

Unease blanketed the room as Shizuma and her father stared at each other. "Uh, Midori," he told his young bride who looked a little concerned. "Zuma-chan and I need talk in private for a moment."

Shizuma shot Midori an angry glare before she and her father entered a small study next to the sitting room and closed the doors for privacy..

"Dad," she spoke coldly. "What was that?"

"Midori-chan," he gulped while under Shizuma's gaze. "I know she's younger than me, but..."

"That's an understatement!" Shizuma yelled back. "She's old enough to be... to be... *my* wife! I can't believe you're marrying someone my age!"

"Uh, actually," he tried. "She's closer to Nagisa-chan's age."

Shizuma blinked once, twice, then growled. "Oh, that makes all the difference now, doesn't it?"

Her father plopped in one of the seats and rubbed his temples. "I don't get why you're being so difficult. You've always wanted me to go out and start dating again. You told me you didn't want me to live out my twilight years alone. And now that I found someone, you get angry?"

"Yes... someone your own age! Not someone you raided from a highschool!"

A flash of anger crossed her father's features now. "Now, you listen to me! I am your father, Zuma-chan and still the master of this house!"

"HAH!" Shizuma smirked. "That hasn't worked on me since I was ten, dad!"

Defeated again, Shizuma's father sighed. "Look, Midori-chan is a nice girl. You should give her a chance."

Shizuma ignored him as she paced up and down the room. "Nice girl? You know what? How dare you? How could you do this to mom?"

"What does your mother have to do with this?" her father blinked in surprise. "Stop this childish tirade, Zuma-chan. I loved your mother dearly and I always love your mother. But Midori and I have found a common ground of companionship and love."

"Oh, please!" Shizuma huffed. "She found a common ground with your wallet, no doubt."

"Hanazono Shizuma! Stop right there!" he demanded. That took Shizuma by surprise. He hadn't spoken to her like that since she had been a little girl, and unlike his previous attempt, this wasn't faked anger. "I wish I could have told you earlier, but I made the mistake of not doing so. I apologize for that, but I can't change it. Also, I wanted to tell you this under better circumstances but..."

Shizuma crossed her arms and waited for her father to speak.

"I will definitely be retiring the year you finish college," her father said softly. "You will take over as CEO of Hanazono Industries. I won't throw you in the deep end. I'll stay on as advisor for a year or two. Then you'll be on your own. I believe you're more than ready for this. And it would be wrong for me to stagnate you any longer than necessary."

It took a few moments for Shizuma to process this information. "W-what?" she stammered. "B-but. I... I'm not. Y-you..." Of course, her father had constantly told her he would be retiring after Shizuma had graduated. It's just that Shizuma had never expected him to actually do it. He was a workaholic, after all. To hear her father say it with such determination simply drove it home harshly.

"It's for the best, Zuma-chan," her father replied. "Midori-chan and I will rebuild somewhat of a life. She made me see how being buried in my work made my life tick away. I'm certain you won't make the same mistakes I did, Zuma-chan. You won't sacrifice your private life for work. You are, in many ways, wiser than I am."

Shizuma's face twisted in a mask of pure rage. "This is her doing, isn't it? She filled your head with all that nonsense! She's got you completely in her thrall!"

"No, no," he tried. "Zuma-chan, it's not like that at all! I..."

"I refuse to listen to this!" Shizuma stormed out of the room, startling all inside. Shizuma shot Midori a look so foul as she passed, it made Midori frightened and shocked Nagisa.

"Zuma-chan!" her father called after her. "Don't be like this! Be reasonable!"

"Shizuma?" Nagisa called after her as well. But Shizuma ignored even her. The silver-haired queen of queens strolled straight towards the front door, passed through and slammed it shut behind her.

Midori turned to Shizuma's father. "Hito?" she asked with a little sadness.

Outside, a car drove off with screeching tires.

"This didn't go as well as I'd hoped it would," Hito said, stating the obvious.

"I'll talk to her," Nagisa said. "When she's calmed down."

Maaya looked on with sadness. "Midori-chan?" she said softly. "I don't think Shizuma nee-san likes us very much."

Kaname was having a rather tough time defending against her relentless opponent.

Fencing. The sport of kings. Or rather, European kings. Back at Astraea Hill, this sport was a bit of an underdog, considering most girls opted to go for Kendo. But while fencing had been practised by a relatively small circle of people, they were all dedicated. Kaname had been one of those select few. And she dared to say she was quite good at it.

Today, however, she found herself constantly pushed back. Every single one of attack was deftly dodged or parried, and countered with a vicious counterattack. Kaname was actually grateful to be wearing the protective clothings and the mask, or she would not come out of this match without scars.

Her opponent twirled her foil around Kaname's and almost disarmed her with a jerk of her hand. It was all Kaname could do to hold on to her hilt. This was enough to throw her off balance. Her opponent's foil found Kaname's chest and bit into her plastron. The match was over.

Or was it?

Rather than the usual nod and surrender, her opponent continued her swings. Vicious, powerful swings, yet balanced enough that Kaname couldn't defend against them.

"The match is done!" Kaname protested as her opponent pressed on. "These are illegal moves."

Of course, Kaname wasn't above using illegal moves. She just didn't like it when others used those illegal moves again her.

With one stroke, her opponent side-stepped her and grabbed her by the arm. Before Kaname could react, the back of her opponent's hand rammed into her throat. Surprised and gasping for air, Kaname doubled over. A bad mistake. A knee being savagely rammed into her stomach fully knocked the wind out of her, and a double-fisted ram on her back downed her completely.

Like a demon possessed, her opponent just kept going and going. Kaname yelped as she just rolled out of the way of a vicious kick to her side and off the mat. Counterintuitively, Kaname ripped off her mask and shouted up at her opponent: "Shizuma-sama! Have you lost your mind?"

Shizuma ripped off her own mask and threw it across the room. She panted heavily and had a look of pure hate in her eyes. She seemed vacant for a moment, then slowly started to calm down. Shizuma slumped down to the mat and sat on all fours, her ocean of hair falling around her body. For the first time, she seemed to realize what she had just done.

After a long shower, the two girls headed over to the sports cafe just outside the arena and enjoyed a coffee. A heavily bruised Kaname was sitting opposite in the booth across from a rather apologetic and timid Shizuma.

"I know you are a passionate person, but this was ridiculous," Kaname smirked as she sipped her coffee.

"I... I don't know what to say. I don't know what came over me," Shizuma looked away. "I... I'm so sorry. I'm so very sorry."

"Forgiven," Kaname waved with her hand, "besides bruises on me drive Momomi completely wild."

"Heh," Shizuma shook her head and smiled in spite of herself.

"But I simply must know what possessed you to turn fencing into a full-contact sport. Or did you drive 150 miles just to kick my ass?"

"I... needed to vent some steam," Shizuma replied as she took a sip of her coffee.

"I gathered that from the way you dragged me out of my home to go fencing," Kaname smirked. "But seriously, I think I've earned the right to know what has upset you so much, hm?"

Shizuma nodded and told the story. About her father's new bride, her age, the argument she had with her father, the anger. Kaname listened to it all, asked some questions to get some poignant details and finally shook her head.

"Shizuma-sama, you are approaching this problem all wrong," Kaname said. "You are taking the battering-ram approach, and that's rarely a good technique to use unless you're either certain of victory or desperate. Subtlety, Shizuma-sama. Subtlety is the key!"

"Subtlety?" Shizuma cocked her head slightly. "What do you mean?"

"Don't you see?" said Kaname as she leant forward. "You're in the perfect position to poison their relationship!"

Kaname took Shizuma's silence as a cry for help and continued. "Information is my weapon, Shizuma-sama. Let it be yours. Find out all about your targets and use it against them. Twist meanings, spread just enough lies and half-truths to cause doubt, breed suspicions in both her and your father and let those do all the work for you. You need only fan the flames every so often. Trust me, you can do anything if you just leave the right bit of information at the right place at the right time for the right person to find."

"T-this really works?"

"Trust me," Kaname grinned wickedly. "If you play your cards right, the golddigger will be out the door and your relationship with your father will be stronger than ever!"

Shizuma leant forward. "Tell me more."

Next chapter – Intrigue in the Hanazono household continues. In the meantime Shion and Chikaru arrive at the estate while Yaya and Tsubomi bicker over their choice of furniture.